The continued clashes between Sunni and Alawite fighters in the city of Tripoli in northern Lebanon have resulted in 31 killed and more than 250 wounded since Sunday (May 19). The continuation of violence with the warring parties using mortars and heavy weaponry for the first time has raised concerns that it could escalate into a new civil war as a spillover of the Syrian civil war.
The Lebanese army has deployed its troops in the Alawite neighborhood Jebel Mohsen that supports the Syrian government, and it was attempting to complete its deployment in the Sunni Bab al-Tabaneh district, which supports the armed opposition in Syria. But the fighters of Bab al-Tabaneh have conditioned that on the surrender of Rifaat Eid, the Alawite leader of the Lebanese Arab Democratic Party, to the Lebanese army.
It is worth noting that a political sectarian rivalry has existed between the two areas since the 1980s, but the Syrian crisis has brought it to a dangerous level.
The Tripoli clashes came on the heels of the battle for Qusair in Syria's central province of Homs, where Lebanon’s Hezbollah group and the army of Syria’s Alawite president, Bashar al-Assad, beat back Syrian Sunni opposition factions and their jihadi allies. The Tripoli violence erupted hours after news that the Syrian army, supported by Hezbollah, had launched an offensive against the opposition fighters in Qusair.
The Sunni Salafi cleric Sheikh Salem Rafei said Friday (May 24) that fighters from Tripoli have reached the Qusair area to assist the opposition, which had asked for urgent assistance.
According to Lebanese sources in Tripoli, the leaders of the Islamist and Salafi fighters set conditions for a truce, including the removal of the Lebanese army’s barricades, the replacement of its 4th Brigade based in Jebel Mohsen with a “neutral brigade” and the replacement of the 12th Brigade in Bab al-Tabaneh with unbiased one. Also, they demanded that the Lebanese prosecutor issue an arrest warrant for the Alawite leader Rifaat Eid.
Lebanese MP Muhin al-Morabi, of the Future Movement led by former Prime Minister Saad Hariri, told Al-Monitor in an exclusive interview that tensions and clashes will remain in the north of Lebanon as long as there is a “small band” belonging to Hezbollah in Jebel Mohsen pounding Tripoli with mortar shells. Morabi indicated that more than 1,000 shells fall on the city per day.
He added: "This happens while the leadership of the Lebanese army is just standing around instead of deterring security violators. How can we hear of someone like Rifaat Eid threatening the entire city with bombing without anyone moving to punish him or at least question him?"
Morabi claimed that Eid and his party own the heavy weapons, while Bab al-Tabaneh’s fighters have only individual guns. He said the Lebanese army “must play its role, but its leadership acts as if it has no role in the area.”
Morabi said, “The army does not need political cover and we always asked it to deploy it on the border (with Syria) and protect the people of the north and the whole country.” He said that in case “the army is not able to carry out its tasks, we have demanded previously the implementation of UNSC Resolution 1701, and for the deployment of UN forces and UNIFIL to protect the northern border from any aggression” from Syria.
“Unfortunately, the army’s leadership is governed by Hezbollah and Iran and the Lebanese president (Michel Suleiman) is unable to issue orders. … He must act,” Morabi added.
When asked whether he considers Tripoli’s clashes to be retaliation for the Qusair battle, and whether Tripoli has become the back line of the Syrian opposition after the Qusair clashes, Morabi responded: "They are attempting to use Tripoli in order to gain media attention to cover the failures of the Syrian army and Hezbollah in Qusair,” in apparently reference to Hezbollah’s heavy casualty numbers there. He added: “We hope that Hezbollah does not win in Qusair so that the Syrian people can be free. No one should believe that if Hezbollah wins in Qusair, things will calm down in Tripoli, but the opposite.”
Morabi demanded the confiscation of the heavy weapons and insisted that the Lebanese army do its job. He said: “We heard that the army is deploying in the north, but unfortunately it is vanishing there. The army failed to ensure citizens’ safety and we won’t reach a solution with its Hezbollah leadership. Therefore, we call for a change of this leadership in order to find one that can bring back security to Tripoli.”
However, Hezbollah has no presence in Tripoli and the Alawite residents of Jebel Mohsen claim that there are attempts to eliminate their presence in the city as well as the presence of the Lebanese army in order to establish a zone that would be free to help the armed opposition in Syria.
The Lebanese Arab Democratic Party denied all of Morabi’s allegations. Media spokesman Abdullatif Saleh told Al-Monitor in a phone interview that his group is committed to the truce and to the instructions of the Lebanese army, indicating that the other side’s fighters are still shooting on Jebel Mohsen. He rebutted Morabi’s accusation that his party is composed of “bands” following Hezbollah, stating that his group is a legal political party acting under the law.
Asked whether the law allows them to own heavy arms and to launch mortars shells on Tripoli, Saleh responded that the allegations were lies and said his people were we defending themselves. He added that Jebel Mohsen has been targeted by Katyusha rockets and mortar bombs, stating that the Lebanese army has deployed his troops in the district, while it could not do that completely in the Bab al-Tabaneh area.
Asked about the demand that Rifaat Eid be arrested, Saleh replied, “Then, they should arrest the whole Alawite community in Jebel Mohsen.” He noted that Eid won 92% of the Alawite vote in the 2009 parliamentary elections.
Saleh said the Future Movement is backing and funding the Islamist and Salafi fighters of Bab al-Tabaneh.
The Alawite sect in north of Lebanon is a small minority encircled by a huge Sunni community and fears that it will pay a price as a result of the Syrian sectarian war.
Thus, Lebanese retired Brig. Gen. Mustafa Hamdan, a close ally of the Syrian regime, has warned of targeting Jebel Mohsen. He told Al-Monitor that “everyone should know that all possibilities are open, and do not think that Jebel Mohsen is an island or Tripoli is an island, it is one battle,” making a reference to the March 8 coalition that would defend that Alawite area.
Hamdan urged the commander of the Lebanese army, Gen. Jean Kahwagi, and the army’s leadership and officers and soldiers, not to listen to the sectarian calls for Sunni officers and soldiers to disobey the army’s orders and support the Sunni fighters in Tripoli. He stressed that the Lebanese army today needs more toughness and that its leadership needs to confront the fighters, as happened in the past. Hamdan seemed to be referring to the army’s campaign against Islamist militants in north Lebanon in 2000 and 2007.
Caretaker Prime Minister Najib Mikati, Prime Minister-designate Tammam Salam and former prime ministers Omar Karami and Fouad Siniora have called on security agencies to quickly end the fighting in Tripoli. “We call on security agencies to implement an urgent plan to prevent an armed presence in all the neighborhoods and streets of the city of Tripoli in order to reach an arms-free Tripoli,” they said in a statement following a meeting at Mikati’s office at the Grand Serail in downtown Beirut on Friday (May 24).
Former Prime Minister Saad Hariri, the Future Movement leader, did not attend the meeting because he is abroad due to security concerns. But he warned against the “conspiracy” targeting Tripoli, considering that the battles aim at diverting the attention from Hezbollah's participation in the Syrian war.
“The ongoing killing in Tripoli aims at providing a cover for the war of Hezbollah and the Syrian regime against Qusair,” Hariri said in a statement on Thursday (May 23). He added: "The killing machine plans to change Tripoli's national and Arab identities and to weaken its position in the political equation in Lebanon.”
Among all these clashes and mutual accusations, President Suleiman warned Hezbollah in a statement about its interference in Syria on Friday (May 24), saying nothing should distract Hezbollah from its fight against Israel.
Haytham Mouzahem is a Lebanese analyst specializing in Middle Eastern and Islamic affairs. On Twitter: @haytham66